Ethical Fading: The Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behavior

Abstract

This paper examines the root of unethical dicisions by identifying the psychological forces that promote self-deception. Self-deception allows one to behave self-interestedly while, at the same time, falsely believing that one's moral principles were upheld. The end result of this internal con game is that the ethical aspects of the decision “fade” into the background, the moral implications obscured. In this paper we identify four enablers of self-deception, including language euphemisms, the slippery slope of decision-making, errors in perceptual causation, and constraints induced by representations of the self. We argue that current solutions to unethical behaviors in organizations, such as ethics training, do not consider the important role of these enablers and hence will be constrained in their potential, producing only limited effectiveness. Amendments to these solutions, which do consider the powerful role of self-deception in unethical decisions, are offered.

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Correspondence to Ann E. Tenbrunsel.

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Tenbrunsel, A.E., Messick, D.M. Ethical Fading: The Role of Self-Deception in Unethical Behavior. Social Justice Research 17, 223–236 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1023/B:SORE.0000027411.35832.53

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  • ethics
  • decision making
  • self-deception
  • ethics training